intellectual vitality

This was my essay for Stanford University, responding to the following prompt: “Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.”

Dancing on a sticky floor in a sweaty gym wasn’t my idea of an intellectual experience.

I’d never given my body much thought; it was simply a vehicle, and any movement was strictly utilitarian. So when I had to choreograph an original routine for dance class, it felt like trying to write an essay in a new language. I knew what I wanted to express, but without the vocabulary—in this case, dance moves—I couldn’t communicate. It was like having words on the tip of your tongue; too much thought and they slipped away like startled rabbits.

So I turned to something I knew—research, in the form of hip-hop music videos and ballroom dance competitions. I immersed myself in the language, history, and culture of dance. I appraised my movements with new eyes, noting how I moved when I was sad versus when I was angry, and sought to replicate those mannerisms on the dance floor.

Am I a brilliant dancer now? Hardly. I barely passed that project. But I did develop a better appreciation for dance and for my physical being.

To me, intellectual vitality means flinging yourself into uncomfortable situations. It means not knowing a language, but gamely striking up a conversation anyway. It means pursuing the words at the tip of your tongue, chasing those rabbits until they’re caught. It means realizing that, sometimes, intellectual vitality isn’t fostered in classrooms or labs or lecture halls. It’s fostered in high school gyms.

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